There's a reason we love police procedurals and courtroom dramas: they invite readers to plunge in, giving us a chance to look at the evidence, hear the witnesses and guess at what it all means. As the pieces accumulate, little by little a picture of the truth --- or of a truth --- emerges. For nail-biting tension, there’s nothing to beat this sort of slow, tantalizing buildup.
Although TESTIMONY isn’t exactly a mystery, its author, Anita Shreve --- a novelist so prolific that her consistency verges on the miraculous --- is a master of suspense. Her work is consistently fresh, intelligent and gripping, and she never fails to be in control of her material, which in this instance concerns a sexual assault case at the fictional Avery Academy, an upper-crust prep school in Vermont. One night after a dance, three boys, star basketball players, have sex with a 14-year-old girl. All four kids are very drunk. And there is a videotape.
TESTIMONY consists of just that: not transcripts from a court of law, but witness statements that dig into every nook and cranny of the crime (if it was a crime). Each chapter is from a different person’s perspective, ranging from Mike, the school’s headmaster, to the perpetrators themselves, the girl in question (it’s uncertain whether she is seductress or victim, or both) and the beleaguered parents. Some pieces of evidence are in the form of letters, others are personal reminiscences; several are from interviews conducted a few years later by an academic researcher investigating “alcohol and the adolescent male.” Together, jigsaw-puzzle-like, these voices tell us the story and its tragic denouement.
Although there are also accounts from more peripheral characters --- policemen, roommates, teammates, a worker in the Avery dining hall --- the students’ relationships with their parents, as well as with quasi-parental figures like teachers or headmasters, are the most central. I think that any parent reading it (most likely a mother) will identify powerfully with the surprise and shock of these adults as they confront the sex, drugs and lies of their children’s double lives.
Two of the three boys, you see, have always seemed like exemplary young men --- high morals, fine minds, all that --- so their behavior is completely out of character. They ruin themselves with one… what? Fit of anger and rebellion? Alcoholic frenzy? Stupid mistake? It’s to Shreve’s credit that she doesn’t sew her ending into a neatly stitched explanation or indictment. Instead, efforts to contain the scandal vie with attempts to expose it, and clarity is lost in a swirl of rage, confusion and grief. Ambiguity is what TESTIMONY is all about.
Of the families, the one belonging to Silas, a local scholarship boy, is the most interesting. His father is a farmer, plain-spoken and radiating grim integrity (he never trusted Avery in the first place); his mother yearns for something more meaningful for herself and her son; and the boy himself is a thoughtful kid, ethical almost to a fault. In love with Noelle, a beautiful cellist, he is racked with self-loathing about what the incident will mean to their future, fearful that she will forgive him but never forget.
Some of the other characters are more clichéd --- the girl, Sienna, is portrayed as a sleazy little opportunist who lacks sensitivity or intelligence. But maybe Shreve is reminding us that it isn’t just virtuous, reserved girls like Noelle who need protection.
And it isn’t just jaded, amoral boys who take sexual advantage. In fact, there is nothing in the novel to suggest, reassuringly, that if teachers and parents paid attention and kids were raised properly, incidents like this would never happen. In that sense, Shreve’s book ends rather bleakly, for how can institutions protect the innocent and nail the guilty when the line between the two is so murky?
But TESTIMONY is as stimulating as it is sad. A fascinating exercise in storytelling from multiple points of view --- with no editorializing from a third-person narrator --- it makes witnesses of its readers and challenges us to make up our own minds about what is true or false, good or bad. A vigorous and provocative book.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011